Tony Woodlief | Author

Worth a read

As many of you know, I’ve been focused on my Intentional Fathering project, and writing little beyond that which doesn’t wind up in a notebook (where it belongs), or transmogrified into a pseudonymous scrap of fiction in some literary venue with a smaller budget than this shoestring blog I can’t bring myself to pull the plug on.

Though it’s a fallow time for my own words, there’s a plethora of other words out there, and some of them are even worth reading. With that in mind, here’s another shot at something I tried a year ago, and would like to make a regular offering: a quarterly rundown of things I’ve read that I think you might like.

Fair and Tender Ladies. Last year was the 30th anniversary of Lee Smith’s novel, which prompted me to pick it up. I’m glad I did. It takes the form of a series of letters written by the protagonist, a spunky Blue Ridge Mountains girl named Ivy Rowe, from her pre-WWI childhood all the way to old age. The first few letters can be off-putting because of childish misspellings, but they lose this affectation as Ivy matures. So much loss, joy, and perseverance in her story. By the end you’ll feel like her family is your own, and you’ll love nearly all of them, even the terrible ones.

“But that is the thing about being young — you never think that what happened to anybody else might happen to you, too.”

Ivy Rowe

Mrs. Bridge. Evan Connell’s novel has a form similar to that of Fair and Tender Ladies, portraying the protagonist’s family and life not in letters but with vignettes. Though they come of age over the same period, Mrs. Bridge is about as far from Ivy Rowe as you can imagine. She’s a naive and wealthy Kansas City housewife whose alienation from herself and everyone around her is an unnamed torment. This is a fine book for expanding a writer’s toolkit, like how to show the reader what characters are thinking and feeling not by putting us inside their heads, but through the eyes of someone who is herself largely oblivious. The story pulled me in, not that there’s a plot to speak of, other than the evolution of people around Mrs. Bridge. It’s emotionally constrained, which is often how family life is, with fury and love and fear all mashed below the surface of our skin.

On Desperate Ground. So okay, if novels about the interior lives of women in the 1940’s aren’t your thing, try this on for size: a harrowing account of the United States Marines’ heroic stand at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Maneuvered by the vainglorious MacArthur and his sycophantic staff into a 10-to-1 ambush, cut off from reinforcements, fighting without winter clothes in below-20 temperatures, the Marines earned their reputation as the most fierce fighting force on the planet during these brutal days and nights. You can also listen to the author, Hampton Sides, interviewed about the battle on The Art of Manliness.

The Rose Garden. Let me veer back into dreamy feminine interiority one more time with a recommendation for Maeve Brennan’s short story collection. Her personal story is tragic, she was devastatingly beautiful, and she used her pen like a razor. What’s not to love?

“A view is where we are not. Where we are is never a view.”

Maeve Brennan

Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.” It may seem like common sense to those of us in flyover country, but given the lunacy reigning in literary circles these days, novelist Zadie Smith really goes out on a limb in this essay. In response to shrill cries of “cultural appropriation,” and claims that only writers of the proper race, gender, sexuality, etc. can depict certain characters, Smith is firm and clear. ” The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.” Thank goodness for every writer who ignores the New Stalinism.

” We’ve gotten into the habit of not experiencing the private, risky act of reading so much as performing our response to what we read…”

Zadie Smith

The Tyranny of Personality Testing.” With the Enneagram fad now sweeping churches, it’s helpful to be reminded that personality tests — even the exalted Myers-Briggs — are largely bunk peddled by third-rate scholars and should be resisted at every turn, especially in the workplace.

My Dad’s Friendship With Charles Barkley.” This is just a sweet story. A young woman tells about her slow realization that her dad, a chemist specializing in cat litter, was telling the truth all those years he talked about being good friends with the NBA all-star.

And finally, a poem about a dad fixing cars. Though of course being a poem it’s about more than that. I think. Either way, I liked it, and I think you will, too.

On Key

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